President Brian Rosenberg delivered the following remarks to the members of the Class of 2014 at their May 17 Commencement.

A few weeks ago I had breakfast with one of Macalester’s most successful alumni, someone who rose through effort and skill to the very highest levels of his profession and has remained there for a long time. He is over 70 now, approaching his 50th reunion, yet he pursues his life and his work with more passion and energy than most people decades younger. The field in which he excels has been transformed and transformed again by technology over the course of his career and today bears little resemblance to the world into which he stepped when he left the college—yet he continues to thrive and not just to keep up, but to lead.

Naturally I wanted to know his secret. How has he maintained his enthusiasm, his edge, his role as a thought leader?

“I embrace change.” That’s what he told me. “I love change; I don’t shrink from it. I see it as an opportunity and not as a threat.” In fact, he said, the most important lesson that Macalester can teach its students is to welcome change and not to fear it.

I told him that I was going to steal—or gratefully borrow—his idea, and so here I am. Consider it stolen.

Welcoming change is far easier said than done for all of us, regardless of our age or worldview or political orientation. Change, especially change that has more than a trivial impact on our lives, always involves an element of loss in that we are bidding farewell to an element of our being to which we had become accustomed. Anatole France—a poet, journalist, and novelist—wrote that “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” Granted he must not have been a lot of fun at parties, but he makes a profound point, one that explains why we hold on with passion and sometimes desperation to the familiar and comfortable, even when we know that its alteration is inevitable. We are not hardwired to embrace change.

This is not to say of course that all change is necessarily for the better. One of the features of change is its almost limitless variety. From some kinds you will benefit and from some kinds you will not. Over some kinds you will have a degree of control and over others you will have none. Some will be reasonably predictable and some will appear to have come out of nowhere. Some will break your heart and some will lift your spirit to the sky. The only certainty, the only consistency, is that change will happen and that you will be well served by responding to it with thoughtfulness and energy.

So, I’ve wondered, what can Macalester do, what do we hope we have done over the past four years, to prepare you for change? Maybe we’ve taught you some history, so that you know that what exists today has not always existed and that change is a constant in all places and all cultures. It’s surprising how many people act as if this is not the case. Maybe we’ve taught you about quantum physics and the fundamental limitations on the certainty of all knowledge. Maybe we’ve taught you through the study of art or philosophy or psychology or anthropology to understand that one person’s sense of a stable world is almost never the same as another’s. Maybe, and most important, we have provided you with a set of skills that will better allow you to adapt and thrive in the face of unforeseen change: the ability to innovate, to create, to think critically, to form new connections. This set of skills will prove more valuable over the course of your lives than anything you know or think you know right now.

Remind yourselves, at moments of the most dramatic change and—usually—stress, that you possess those skills. They are in there, and you can call upon them to manage the sometimes radical transition to the new.

I always like to balance out the nature of my quotations, so I figure if I threw Anatole France at you, I should complement that with something a little more in the vein of rock and roll. So I’m going with David Bowie, who for all I know sounds to you the way Frank Sinatra sounded to me when my parents played his songs in the kitchen. I hope not. But here’s Bowie:

Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time

Indeed, you can’t trace where time will take you, but you can strap yourself in for the ride so that you’re not terrified or tossed from the car—so that it’s an adventure and not an ordeal. My hope is that we’ve made it at least a little bit easier for you to do so.

*David Bowie

August 13 2014

Back to top